Just to the right of the entrance of the Church of the Virgin Mary in the village of El Aour is a large poster made from a blown-up screen grab from a video released online by the Islamic State in Libya. The image shows 21 young men kneeling with heads lowered, just moments before their execution; masked Islamic State militants stand behind them, knives at the ready.
Inside the church, a clergyman chants the second Sunday prayer at 7 a.m. Above him, another banner hangs with images of the faces of the young Christians executed in February by the Islamic State. All of those killed are believed to be Egyptian Christians, and 13 of the young men hailed from El Aour, a village in Egypt’s Minya Governorate, some 150 miles south of Cairo.
In mid-February, the Islamic State, which expanded into Libya in late 2014, released a five-minute video showing the beheading of the 21 Egyptian workers. The clip featured the victims wearing the now-familiar orange jumpsuits, being held by knife-wielding militants on a Mediterranean beach. The gruesome killings captured international headlines and sent shockwaves through the Egyptian Coptic community.
The small village of El Aour has become a microcosm of shifting sectarian conflict in the Middle East, where an event in one country can send ripples into a neighboring one, setting off another dispute. The once quiet rural village now faces conflicts over the construction of a new church to memorialize those killed — the “martyrs” as they’re called here.
A protest in April by local Muslims against the new church turned violent, with some protestors attacking the existing church and destroying property.
The conflict only started after the killings in Libya, according to Samia Fayig Dal El Gacha, the mother of Samou’il Faraj Ibrahim, one of the young men killed in Libya. “Then people started coming to throw things at the church, to fight. Before [Muslims] never fought us,” she says. “But as soon as our boys were killed, then they come threatening [the church].”
The recent attacks against the Copts of El Aour were new to her, she said. She believes that those who attacked the existing church came from outside El Aour.
“There were Muslims in the community who defended the church. They made a line — no car or person could even enter,” she says. “This encouraged me. They stood up for us.”
Faraj Ibrahim Sa’id, 62, the father of Samou’il Faraj Ibrahim, also brushed off the sectarian tensions in El Aour, saying the aggressors came from outside the community. “People from outside the area came in, from other areas,” he says. “Here the people are quiet, calm. They get along well. There was some trouble, but everything was peaceful.”
Inside the living room of their home in the neighboring village of El Soubi, the television in the background flashing bits of a speech by a former Coptic Pope, Sa’id and El Gacha speak of life with their son living in Libya.
The family spoke to Malaak, as they refer to their son, every other day on the phone from Libya. He lived with other Egyptian Copts in shared apartments in Sirte, hometown of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Aware of the chaos that had enveloped Libya and the persecution facing religious minorities there, El Gacha says the family urged Malaak to return home: “We were always telling him to come home. He said, ‘I’ll come soon.’”
Sa’id adds, “You could sense that he was under pressure, that there was trouble.”
Their last correspondence with Malaak was in late December. Shortly after that, he was kidnapped by Islamic State militants. After that, Sa’id says, they had no news about him until the release of the execution video.
Three months after the release of a video by the Islamic State showing his son’s execution, Sa’id, like most of the victims’ families, is stoic about his son’s fate. “In Libya he was often at church, praying,” says Sa’id. “His faith was strong.”
El Minya has a mixed Coptic Christian and Muslim population, and villagers say El Aour is evenly divided between Copts and Muslims.
It was employment, not sectarian strife, which originally drew the villagers to Libya: the El Minya governorate suffers from some of the highest rates of extreme poverty in Egypt. Sa’id’s son Malaak couldn’t make a living for himself, his wife and baby daughter in El Aour, so he went to Libya.
Malaak had a degree in agriculture, and was skilled in painting and plastering, but wasn’t making ends meet. “Even after the diploma, and learning a trade, he found wages in Egypt very little,” says Sa’id.
In May 2014, Malaak, then 30 years old, and some of his friends left to Libya, ending up in Sirte, now under Islamic State control. “He had good work there in Sirte,” says Sa’id.
Employment in Libya has for decades attracted thousands of Egyptians, who work in everything from education to manual labor. In March 2013, it was reported that some 50 Egyptian Copts in Libya were arrested on immigration charges after having been suspected of proselytizing.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says that sectarian conflicts are not new in Egypt: former president Hosni Mubarak ignored the institutional discrimination against Copts that perpetuated inequality.
“Copts under Mubarak didn’t have full rights as citizens in Egypt,” he says, noting that they were kept out of high posts in government like the Interior Minister, governorships and prevented from proselytizing.
In the post-revolutionary power vacuum, Ibrahim says, Islamist groups and parties tried to garner grassroots support by creating an internal enemy out of Egypt’s Coptic minority.
A 2013 report by Human Rights Watch asserts that the Egyptian government has ignored instances of violence against Copts, even as, in some cases, religious leaders have reportedly incited their followers to attack churches. In the town of Minya, as well as in Minya Governorate, residents told the group that black ‘Xs’ were spray painted on the fronts of Copt-owned shops to set them apart from those owned by Muslims.
Under today’s rule by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, however, Ibrahim says sectarian tensions are on the rise — compared to Mubarak’s reign — with the government using Islamic symbolism to win over political Islamists who once supported the Muslim Brotherhood. “The Sisi regime is using religious speech and morals to show itself as more ‘Islamic’ than the Islamists.”
In the meantime, construction has yet to begin on the new church in El Aour, which will be funded by the Egyptian state, though the budget and presidential permission are ready, according to Magar Issa, a local clergyman. Residents are still waiting for a go-ahead from El Minya’s governor.
Bashir Zaky Hany, 41, uncle of another Copt slain by the Islamic State, speaks calmly while pointing out his nephew from the grim poster image. “When this church is built,” he says, “we will feel that it is an incarnation of our martyrs’ bodies.”
Photo: Alex Potter